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Consumer Confidence Holds Steady In March

Consumer confidence held steady in March, with a slight blip upward halting three months of declines as slivers of hopes about the economy buoyed Americans.

But consumers are still feeling gloomy about their future given mounting layoffs and shrinking earnings.

The New York-based Conference Board said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 26.0 in March from a revised 25.3 reading in February, which was itself a big drop from 37.4 in January.

The slight rise followed three consecutive monthly drops. But the reading came in below the 28 expected by economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters, and remains less than half of its level of 65.9 last March.

"The consumers remain extremely apprehensive about, not only the outlook for the economy, but the job market and their earnings as well," Lynn Franco, Director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center, told CBS News.

How people feel about their current economic circumstances, known as the Present Situation Index, slipped to 21.5 from 22.3 last month. Their assessment about the economy over the next six months, or the Expectations Index, rose to 28.9 from 27.3 in February.

Despite the slight improvement in that reading, many economists believe that a recovery is not near, and people continue to worry about what's ahead.

"We have seen some signs of improvement in the economy, but they are subtle," said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group. "We have seen nothing significant to shift the mood of the consumer."

In recent weeks, a few encouraging economic reports, including better-than expected figures on consumer spending, helped fuel a stock rally. But that rally remains tenuous as the economy remains deeply troubled.

A widely watched index released Tuesday shows American home prices dropped by the sharpest annual rate on record in January. The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city housing index tumbled by a record 19 percent from January 2008. The 10-city index dropped 19.4 percent.

Another big issue is job security, a major factor behind shoppers' ability and willingness to spend. The U.S. unemployment rate - now at 8.1 percent, the highest since late 1983 - is expected to rise to 8.5 percent in March, with projections of another 651,000 jobs lost, according to economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters. Many economists expect unemployment to tick up to about 10 percent by the end of the year.

Given continued woes in the economy, Baumohl said, consumer sentiment will likely remain battered through at least the rest of the year.

Economists closely monitor consumer confidence since consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity. The consumer confidence survey, which sampled 5,000 U.S. households through March 24, showed Americans remain gloomy about the job market.

The percentage of consumers saying jobs are "hard to get" increased to 48.7 percent from 46.9 percent in February, while those claiming jobs are "plentiful" was unchanged at 4.6 percent, according to a Conference Board statement.

Their short-term outlook was moderately less negative. The percentage of consumers expecting fewer jobs in the months ahead decreased to 42.6 percent from 47.0 percent, while those expecting more jobs edged up to 7.1 percent from 6.8 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes declined to 7.5 percent from 7.9 percent.